What is Reflective Leadership in Education?

Written by Rebecca Turley


“Without reflection, we go blindly on our way, creating more unintended consequences, and failing to achieve anything useful.”

It seems obvious, right? Leadership experience equals leadership expertise.

But not so fast.

We often assume that educational leaders with the most experience are also the most capable and the most skillful in their role. But experience alone won’t get you very far if you aren’t committed to reflecting on those experiences and growing from them.

As Plato said, the unexamined life is not worth living… So, school and district leaders willing to consider past actions and learn from them take important lessons from those experiences. And that’s what’s at the heart of the concept of reflective leadership in education.

Reflective leadership also means helping faculty avoid the same mistakes you’ve made, while encouraging them to reflect on the lessons their own experiences can offer them.

What Do Reflective Leaders in Education Do?

Reflective leadership is focused on continuous self-awareness and development. Through reflective leadership, leaders consider the meaning of their past experiences and then use this knowledge to guide their future actions.

The most effective school leaders are those who gather meaning from their experiences. Reflective leaders consider their experiences, behaviors, and actions and reflect upon them to shape their future decisions. Reflective leadership is about taking a step back from your experiences, considering them thoughtfully, and then creating a new path forward.

Pause, reflect, act.

“Reflection is the process of stepping back from an experience to ponder, carefully and persistently, its meaning to the self through the development of inferences; learning is the creation of meaning from past or current events that serves as a guide for future behavior.”

Reflective leaders in education consider their experience, reflect upon it thoughtfully, intentionally, and insistently, and only then do they act. They use self-reflection as a tool to improve their performance. As a result, they approach their role with a high level of self-awareness and consideration.

Reflecting upon past decisions and actions allows educational leaders to:

Reflection allows leaders to forge ahead with confidence, avoiding past mistakes and gathering valuable insight that allows them to improve upon their performance and foster their personal growth.

Self-Reflection Prompts for Educational Leaders

reflecting on paperThe easiest path to self-reflection for educational leaders starts with a prompt.

Asking yourself one or more of the following questions as you review your past decisions and actions can provide you with outstanding insight and a unique opportunity for introspection.

  • How did my team react to my actions? Were they receptive?
  • How did I react to questions from the team?
  • Did I remain open and willing to discuss my actions with my team?
  • Did I accomplish what I set out to do? If not, how did I fall short?
  • What did today teach me?
  • Did I make my priorities clear to my team?
  • How can I better lead my team in the future?
  • What decisions did I make this week that align with my leadership goals?
  • What decisions fell short of aligning with my leadership goals?
  • Did my team understand the real challenge/task? If not, how can I improve how I communicate with them? Was I clear about my expectations?
  • Did I meet the standard I want to see in my team? Was I open, honest, clear in my expectations, and receptive to their needs?

Our fast-paced society doesn’t leave much room for reflection, and leaders are often seen as more valuable when they are actively leading rather than sitting in quiet contemplation. And disruptions can pop up at any time, knocking even the most well-considered plans offline before they’ve had a chance to be put into motion. COVID was a prime example of this.

Despite the often frenetic educational environment, leaders owe it to themselves and the faculty they lead to consider the value of reflecting on the experiences they’ve accumulated through the years.

How to Become a Reflective Educational Leader

reflecting alone

Graduate degrees in educational leadership and administration are beneficial for preparing leaders, but so are real-life experiences.

There’s an interesting irony in the fact that educational leaders who allow themselves the time to look back are better prepared to make innovative improvements going forward.

Trial and error, experimentation—they all occur on the job daily, and they all offer an opportunity to learn. Here’s how you can squeeze the most learning opportunities from your past experiences…

Consider what you want to achieve.

What is standing in the way of your goals? What is your end goal? Some questions to ask include: What occurred? Why do think it happened? What were you feeling? How was this situation the same or different from other problems or situations? What should you do now?

Make periods of self-reflection a priority.

Schedule them, carve out time in your calendar so reflection becomes intentional. Many top leaders make self-reflection a daily practice, committing at least 15 minutes or so every day for rest and reflection. But you may find that a weekly review is equally effective.

Be selective about where you focus your energy.

Take time to address and prioritize top issues instead of becoming distracted by the minutiae of the day. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself trapped in indecision, exhausted, and doomed to repeat old patterns of behavior.

Look at the past as valuable learning opportunities.

Now is not the time to beat yourself up about something that didn’t go as planned. Ditch the negativity and look for the positive in the situation. Ask yourself what went right, what you learned from the experience, and how you’ll use this knowledge moving forward.

Enlist the help of a trusted colleague or mentor.

Work through particularly difficult situations. While being alone with your thoughts has its perks, it may help to talk with someone you trust.

Consider different forms of self-reflection.

Journaling often serves as an excellent way to get your thoughts down on paper and provides an easy reference as you move forward. Some leaders find it very beneficial to keep a journal with them so they can jot down thoughts and ideas throughout the day.

Include Your Team – Reflective Learning Doesn’t Have to Be a Solitary Exercise

Being a reflective leader in education may also mean rallying the troops and encouraging them to reflect as part of a group exercise – reflection sessions can be fantastic team-building events, and a lot of fun too.

Assembling a select number of educators in a group setting can allow you to gain unique perspectives on a situation as a school leader. Or similarly, as a district leader, gathering the principals of your district for quarterly meetings that are focused on reflection can be an effective way to gather different viewpoints as a superintendent.

Through reflective leadership, educational administrators can create safe spaces where everyone is heard, and mutual respect is expressed. While self-reflection is an important part of any leader’s toolbox, it’s also important to provide members of your educational team with opportunities to reflect upon school- or district-wide initiatives, programs, decisions, and efforts.

In these settings, educational leaders are afforded the unique opportunity to understand what others are experiencing. Effective leadership means really knowing the people you lead and understanding their needs, strengths, challenges, and points of view.

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